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In an article for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-posten, freelance journalist Pola Rojan took a look at the state of press freedom in Turkey, the country at EU’s border which has tried to gain full membership of the Union since 1987. What he found was a country who had started to take the rights of journalists increasingly less serious in what seems to be a deliberate attempt from the government to stifle freedom of speech.
Mid-February, the newly appointed American ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, expressed concern over the increased number of cases against journalists and his statement received immediate support from the Foreign Ministry in Washington. At the same time, several international investigations have pointed out the exact same development in the Turkish state. At the start of February, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) concluded in their yearly report that the situation for journalists in Turkey was a great cause of concern. The organization refers to the around 4.000 journalists who are currently on trail at the Turkish court, hundreds of them already serving prison sentences.
The Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, responded to Mr Ricciardone’s statement with anger, saying that the subject was none of the American’s business and called him an ‘amateur ambassador’. The Minister of the Interior, Beshir Atalay followed up by remarking that press freedom was probably better off in Turkey than in the US. This attitude is a sharp contrast to the current situation for many journalists on the ground – a situation which international observes believe can be attributed to the conservative Justice and Development party (AK Party) and their eight year period as the ruling party. Reporters Without Borders release a yearly report on the global conditions of freedom of press and in this period, Turkey took a dive in the organizations country index. From having been placed at number 99 for a stable period until 2002, Turkey had fallen to number 138 out of 178 countries in 2010. The EU commission assigned to oversee the Turkish reform process have been highly critical of this development, stating that the country’s legislation have failed to guarantee the freedom of press in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the problem is mainly the anti-terror law from which many journalist are prosecuted for propaganda activities. The legislation judges the word as harsh as the sword – meaning that producing material considered to represent a terrorist organization is just as criminal as picking up a weapon and fighting for its cause. Spokeswoman for HRW in Turkey calls the law a political instrument and cites its unspecified language as a major reason for the law’s misuse.
Irfan Aktan, a 30-year-old journalist, is currently serving a 15 months prison sentence, convicted of terrorist propaganda after interviewing two armed militants from the Kurdish resistance movement PKK. He has appealed the conviction but has joined the cabinet of ‘unwanted’ journalist which include more controversial cases such as Verdat Kursun, chief editor of Azadiya Welat who was sentenced to 166 years in prison for “spreading propaganda for an illegal organization” – meaning the PKK. To Jyllands-posten, Mr Aktan explains “I have passed on other people’s opinion to a newspaper audience. It is the most fundamental journalistic discipline for which I am now being punished.”